Architecture · Conservation · Monuments and Memorials · Restoration

Through George Washington’s Eyes

Old souvenir postcard of Christ Church's interior
Old souvenir postcard of Christ Church’s interior

When we were in Philadelphia several years ago, we visited Christ Church, an historic building where George Washington worshipped. We were able to sit in Washington’s pew, and as I sat there my gaze was directed to the clerestory windows near the roof line. As I looked through one of the windows, it occurred to me that I was seeing what George Washington saw! No doubt the windows had been painted over the years, but they hadn’t changed, and the view outside the window certainly hadn’t changed. 

This realization was a mind-blowing experience for me. I tried to think of other places where this kind of experience would be available. One I immediately thought of was Jasper Cropsey’s front porch. Cropsey was one of the landscape artists of the Hudson River school.  Ever Rest, his home, has been preserved in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, where many of his paintings of the Hudson River are on display, and you can sit on his front porch and observe what he saw that inspired the pictures of the Hudson River that are on display inside.

There are, of course, many restored historic buildings where an attempt has been made to recreate the original, but the restorers’ hand inevitably introduces a false note. For instance, great pains are taken to preserve the additions they have made (plastic runners over the carpet, no sitting on the chairs) so one misses the normal wear and tear that is common in a home.

So keep your eyes open, be alert for any opportunity that presents itself, and take advantage of it. You will be glad you did! And let me know about it!

Holidays · Monuments and Memorials

Why We Celebrate George Washington’s Birthday Today Instead of Friday

This portrait of George and Martha Washington is in the collection of the Merchant's House Museum
This portrait of George and Martha Washington and her grandchildren .is in the collection of the Merchant’s House Museum, New York City.

Time was when George Washington’s birthday, February 22, was a vigorously celebrated patriotic holiday. Here’s how Julia Lay, the wife of a New York City bookkeeper described the city in her diary entry of February 22, 1852:

A great demonstration. The bells were rung, cannons fired, and there was a general observance all over the city. Thousands of houses were illuminated and decorated with busts of Washington and flags were on house tops and steeples and parlor balconies.

Washington, “first in war, first in peace, first in the hearts of his countrymen” was revered throughout the 19th century. In 1879, congress declared his birthday, February 22, a federal holiday.

But gradually the American Revolution and the founding receded into the distance, and the reverence the people felt for Washington in earlier years faded.

in 1968 George Washington’s birthday became a casualty of the Uniform Monday Holiday Act, when an act of congress shifted the fixed dates of certain holidays to designated Mondays in order to give federal employees several three day weekends. Congress did not change the name to Presidents’ Day, but because the third Monday of February falls between Lincoln’s birthday (February 12) and GW’s birthday (February 22), some people began calling it Presidents’ Day, and today it seems to be a holiday to honor all presidents, which in effect really honors none of them.

The third Monday in February never falls on February 22, George Washington’s actual birthday.

Holidays · Monuments and Memorials

In Honor of Daniel R Leffel and All Who Have Served

Some of you may have read this before. I have posted it several times in honor of my family’s soldier who served so bravely. I just thought Veterans’ Day was a good time to post it again.


When those of my generation speak of “the war,” you should know that we are referring to World War II, when every able-bodied young man was in uniform and every family had “their serviceman”–if not a father, son, brother, or husband, then a cousin or the son of a friend, or the boy down the street.

Our soldier was Lt. Daniel Leffel, who was married to my mother’s sister, my aunt Florence. When Danny marched off to war, he and Florence were newlyweds. They were a vibrant young couple. She was beautiful and funny and lovable. I adored her, and I thought Danny was simply the perfect boyfriend—so handsome in his dress uniform, which I remember Florence told me they called their “pinks,” I suppose because of the slightly rosy tone of the drab trousers. Danny came home for one last leave, and then Florence accompanied him back to California where he shipped out, and she made the long, lonely train ride home by herself to Lansing, Kansas, where she spent the war years living with her mother, my grandmother.

Danny was the commander of Company G, 184th Infantry, Seventh Division, a veteran of four Pacific campaigns: the Aleutians, Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands, Leyte, and finally Okinawa. At Okinawa, in the early morning of April 19, 1945, Danny and his men were the first to come under fire from the Japanese as they attempted an assault on Skyline Ridge of Ouki Hill. According to the official military history, Lt Leffel sent a squad forward to “feel out the enemy.” When they came under heavy fire, he radioed for an armored flame thrower. Fighting continued all day, and finally the American forces were forced to retreat to the bottom of the hill.

At 1525 G Companies of the 32nd and 184th Regiments undertook to resume the attack which had been stalemated since early morning, without a great promise of success. Along the base of Ouki Hill both companies were pinned to the ground at 1620 by an extremely heavy 81 mm mortar concentration. Amid the din of exploding mortar, slivers of flying metal filled the air. In small groups or singly the men dashed back in short spurts toward their former position. Many were killed while in flight. One man running wildly back toward safety stopped suddenly and assumed what appeared to be an attitude of prayer. In the next instant, he was blown to bits by a direct hit.

Members of the Seventh Division okinawa_2-1

And worse was yet to come. The fiercest fighting of the bloodiest battle of the War occurred from April 20-24. Danny was wounded on April 23 and flown to a hospital in Hawaii where he died on April 26, 1945. We know he fought bravely, for he was awarded the Silver Star for heroic action on Leyte.

I still have a letter he wrote me in August of 1944 from Oahu, Hawaii after the Seventh had returned to Hawaii following the Kwajalein campaign. There is sort of a sweet formality to the letter.”Well, Little Chum, I haven’t heard from you in a little while, but I feel I owe you a letter, so here goes.” He discusses the weather among other trivialities, although on the second page he gets around to telling me with great pride that his division has just been honored with a presidential review at which not only President Roosevelt but General MacArthur, Admiral Nimitz and General Richardson were present, and the other units lined the streets in honor of the Seventh Division (“our organization”).

2012-11-10 21.11.56
Oahu—Aug. 2, 1944 “Dearest Mary”

Those of us who lived through this war will never forget it or the young men who served. The whole nation waited and worried and wondered if their boys would come home. Many of them did not.

* * * * * * * * * * *

Not long ago, I was waiting for Herb outside a used book store near our apartment, browsing through some books on a cart that had been rolled outside. My attention was drawn to a small volume, which upon closer inspection proved to be a New Testament. I discovered that it was a Gideon publication, and according to the flyleaf, had been presented to Michael Zeamer by the Showers of Sunshine of the First Pentecostal Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania on December 29, 1943. A message from the Commander-in-Chief appeared in the frontispiece. I read:

Presented to Michael Zeamer, December 19, 1943
Presented to Michael Zeamer, December 19, 1943

January 25, 1941
To: The Armed Forces:
As Commander-in-Chief I take pleasure in commending the reading of the Bible to all who serve in the armed forces of the United States. Through the centuries men of many faiths and diverse origins have found in the Sacred Book words of wisdom, counsel and inspiration It is a fountain of strength and now, as always, an aid in attaining the highest inspirations of the human soul.

Very sincerely yours,

Franklin D. Roosevelt

About that time, Herb appeared, I put the book back on the cart, and we started home. But after two blocks, a funny thing happened. As we walked along I experienced an emotional tug on my heart strings that I simply could not ignore. I realized that I had to have that little book, for it seemed to me that this object was a powerful, powerful connection to an important period of my growing up. We returned to the bookstore and bought it, and it has proved to be an object I treasure.

So–in honor of Danny Leffel, whom I knew well, and Michael Zeamer, whom I knew not at all, and all the others who have served our country in times of war and peace, I remember you and thank you from the bottom of my heart.




Conservation · Historic House Museums · Merchant's House · Monuments and Memorials · Museums · Preservation · Restoration

How a Hundred-eighty-six-year-old House Survived the Odds and Why It Should Be Cherished

Cover-photograph-(CROPPED&Colorized)August, 1933—The country was in the depths of the Great Depression. Gertrude Tredwell had just died at the age of 93 in the 1832 rowhouse her family had inhabited for almost 100 years. A century of urban progress meant that the house, once located in the New York City’s most desirable neighborhood, was now just steps from the Bowery, the nation’s skid row. It was a time capsule, complete with the original owners’ furnishings dating to mid 19th century, and personal belongings as well—books, decorative objects, textiles, and even 39 dresses belonging to the women of the family.

Enter George Chapman, a distant cousin who made what can only be described as a foolhardy decision to “save” the old house from the auction block and turn it into a museum. Not only had the old house been long neglected and was then well along the road to disintegration, but certainly no one at that time was inclined to donate money to preserving the home of an early New York City merchant—a rich merchant, to be sure—a good man certainly—but not a person of historical significance.

But George was a wealthy man and in spite of increasing physical infirmity he just barely managed to hold his beloved museum together at great personal cost for over 20 years. However, he was not inclined to make major repairs let alone the needed thorough restoration of the collapsing house.

Eventually, an impeccable authentic restoration did take place, undertaken without charge by Joseph Roberto, an accomplished restoration architect who exercised a scrupulous regard for the original fabric of the building and recruited some of the most talented craftsmen in the country as well as White House architect, Edward Vason Jones and noted 19th century authority on American decorative arts, Berry Tracy, as pro bono consultants.

The restoration was a story of creative solutions to structural calamities, heartbreaking setbacks, personality conflicts, and an unceasing struggle to find funding, but Joseph Roberto simply would not give up, and eventually the house was restored to its original beauty, structurally stronger than ever. The textiles had completely deteriorated, but instead of replacing them with period appropriate examples, The Decorators Club, who were responsible for the interior refurbishment, wisely had the original silk curtains and the carpeting reproduced at extraordinary expense.

The story doesn’t end there, however, for there was to be one last crisis, which could literally have brought the house down were it not for the wise direction of the current director and the support of government and corporate grants, and the generosity of private donors.

Since the beginning, The Merchant’s House has held an unworldly attraction for all those who have been involved in its long life. It is not an exaggeration to say that people simply fall in love with it and are willing to devote extraordinary effort to its preservation.

Maybe that’s because of what happens when you cross the threshold.A mirror reflecting the 19th century.

Which brings me to the most miraculous circumstance of all. Here we come as close as we ever will to those who came before us. As we tune in to the height of the ceilings and the nearness of the walls, as we travel a path from room to room, observing the light, seeing what the family saw in those rooms—the piano, the mirrors, the Duncan Phyfe chairs, their four poster beds—we learn with our bodies as well as our brains what it was like to live in a 19th century urban rowhouse owned by one of the early merchants who laid the commercial foundations of this great city.

Once there were hundreds of such homes lining the streets of the neighborhood north of Bleecker. Now there is only one left to tell the story.

On September 26, the New York City Council will vote on a developer’s application to build an eight-story hotel next door to the Merchant’s House. Engineering analyses show that the proposed construction would cause catastrophic damage to the fragile building, leading to a possible collapse.



Monuments and Memorials

Fearless Girl—a Hypocrite as well as a Shil! State Street Advisors Settles $5 Million Gender Discrimination Lawsuit

Fearless Girl Stares Down the Wall Street Bull

Remember “Fearless Girl”? On February 28 of this year, the eve of International Women’s Day, a bronze statue of a defiant little girl suddenly appeared facing down the iconic Wall Street Bull.

She was commissioned by the firm, State Street Global Advisors in order, according the firm, to highlight the need to increase feminine representation on the boards of Wall Street firms.

Also, not incidentally, it was intended to celebrate State Street’s Global Advisors’ Gender Diversity Index SHE fund, meant to appeal to investors wanting to invest in politically correct corporations. A plaque at the girl’s feet said as much.

Many loved the statue, reacting to it as a feminist symbol of the power of women to face down male domination on Wall Street and men in general. She was an instant celebrity! Tourists flocked to see her. Women brought their little girls to be photograped with her.

However, there were those who were not happy, and controversy ensued. The sculptor of the bull, Arturo Di Modica, was incensed by the Fearless Girl. He had wanted the Bull to be viewed as a representation of “the strength and power of the American people,” not as an oppressor of women. And others, including me, pointed out that Fearless Girl was totally dependent on the bull for her message: an artistic encroachment that we deemed out of bounds.

Others objected to the fact that she was advertising a commercial product on city property and had no permit to be there. When this became more widely understood, the plaque heralding the SHE fund was removed.

Twenty-eight thousand people signed an online petition to keep her. Finally Mayor de Blasio decided that she could stay—until March 1, 2018,the anniversary of International Women’s Day, rolled around.

Representing a minority feminist view, Gina Bellafante, a columnist of the New York Times, had criticized the statue as a cynical PR ploy, an example of “corporate feminism.”

Turns out she was right! At the time Fearless Girl made her appearance, State Street was under investigation by the Department of Labor for unfair labor practices. And now State Street has settled a $5 million gender discriminiation lawsuit

According to the Boston Globe:

 “In March, an office within the Department of Labor found that State Street had discriminated against women at the senior vice president, managing director, and vice president levels by paying them less than men in similar positions. The agency also claims the company paid black employees less than similarly positoned white employees.

The pay practices covered a two-year period and affected 305 female executives and 15 black vice presidents, the government said. They will receive a total of $4.5 million in back pay and nearly $508,000 in interest.”

So much for gender equity.

I hope that Fearless Girl’s lease will not be renewed when it expires in February.